How Recognizing Ecosystem Services Can Make Agriculture More Sustainable

Food prices are predicted to increase by 30 to 50 percent over the next several decades, according to a new report by the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) in conjunction with the International Water Management Institute (IWMI). The reason is that food production will be unable to “keep up with growing demand.”

The report titled, An Ecosystems Approach to Water and Food Security, looks at how understanding ecosystem services can make food production more stable and sustainable. Launched on August 22 during World Water Week in Stockholm, Sweden, the report states that approaches to food production need to change. Specifically, there needs to be a shift from food production systems to agroecosystems “that provide a wider variety of services.” The examples cited by the report include reusing agricultural waste products like crop residue, or strategically placing trees in agroecological landscapes to increase water infiltration and percolation.

“Maintaining healthy ecosystems to ensure water availability and other ecosystem services is essential for long-term food security,” the report states.

“Agriculture is both a major cause and victim of ecosystem degradation,” said Eline Boelee of IWMI, the lead scientific editor of the report. “And it is not clear whether we can continue to increase yields with the present practices. Sustainable intensification of agriculture is a priority for future food security, but we need to take a more holistic ‘landscape’ approach.”

Managing water resources in dryland agroecosystems

The report looks at various agroecosystems including dryland types, which include my native San Joaquin Valley, located smack dab in the middle of California. Drylands support one-third of the world’s population, up to 44 percent of all the world’s cultivated systems and about 50 percent of the world’s livestock.

Irrigation is a big issue in drylands. The report recommends water management as one way to increase the sustainable food production in drylands. Specifically, the report recommends drip irrigation and cultivating “water-conserving resilient multipurpose tree-crop mixtures.” In addition, the report recommends the following:

  • Creating institutions for integrated water resources management
  • Managing rainwater and runoff sources

The report makes recommendations for the national/state level to better manage water resources, including ensuring that various ecosystem services are valued when putting frameworks into place to allocate water resources. Another recommendation is to bring different water resource users, including farmers and environmentalists together to resolve conflicts between competing users. This recommendation is especially needed in the San Joaquin Valley which has had well-publicized battles between the agricultural sector and environmentalists over the San Joaquin River.

Water accounting is also needed to know where and how water resources are being used. The benefits of water accounting include saving water, freeing up water for ecosystems, and ensuring that initiatives to improve water efficiency in agriculture don’t end up hurting downstream users.

Photo: Flickr user, Puliarf

Gina-Marie Cheeseman

Gina-Marie is a freelance writer and journalist armed with a degree in journalism, and a passion for social justice, including the environment and sustainability. She writes for various websites, and has made the 75+ Environmentalists to Follow list by

One response

  1. Very interesting discussion. I am an aerospace engineer working on fuel combustion. So far fuel efficiency with no consideration to the environmental impact of the fuel used to be the prime concern in our research. The department of environmental engineering used to do separate research to control pollution. Last year we took an initiative to do combined research with environmental engineering department to do research on increasing fuel efficiency having environmental impact as a consideration.

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